For three efficient innings on Friday, Ricky Romero showed off a new confidence from reworking his delivery in Florida, resembling the pitcher awarded the honour of consecutive Opening Day starts the past two seasons.
In the fourth inning though, the Romero of 2012 reappeared as Seattle batted around to score three runs en route to a 4-0 win over the listless Blue Jays, in the opener of a three-game set played in front of an reflectively listless 23,779 at the closed-roof Rogers Centre.
A club widely expected to contend for the AL East division title, Toronto dropped to 10 games under .500 at 10-20, got shut out for the third time at home, lost for the ninth time in 11 games, had its run differential drop to minus-48. Hired in part for his people managing skills, manager John Gibbons may soon be tested in the area of crisis management with his team in a free fall. After the Seattle series this weekend, the Jays head to Tampa and Boston to take on AL East foes in seven straight.
Felix Hernandez (4-2) needed only 95 pitches in eight innings to mow down the Jays, striking out seven and holding the lineup to five hits. The club’s overall batting average slid to .226.
With Romero taking the loss in his season debut, the rotation’s overall record fell to 5-11 with a 5.36 earned run average. Jason Bay of Trail, B.C., resurrecting his career in Seattle, hit a solo homer off reliever Aaron Loup, the 39th homer off Toronto’s pitching staff in 30 games.
A 15-game winner with a 2.92 ERA in 2011, Romero was left at extended spring training to reconstruct his delivery, having gone 9-14 with a 5.77 earned run average and 105 walks last year. Recalled Thursday, he faced the minimum nine batters through three innings.
“It felt like the guy I’ve been working on,” Romero said. “I had good stuff and a lot of life in my fastball.”
Michael Saunders led off the fourth by drawing a walk. Romero got the first pitch in for a strike on 10 consecutive batter and maybe went to the well one time too many, as Kyle Seager pounced on a high, first-pitch fastball for a two-run homer.
Romero hit a batter and walked two more. Two pitches into a four-pitch walk given Justin Smoak, the trainer, pitching coach Pete Walker and every infielder visited the mound as Romero was dealing with a callous. With the bases loaded, Dustin Ackley singled in a run on a full-count fastball for a 3-0 lead.
The left-hander prevented a bigger inning as Jesus Montero’s comebacker deflected off his forearm toward the plate. He recovered to get the force at home, and induced a pop fly from Brendan Ryan to finish the inning. Pulled after four innings, he allowed three hits, three runs and three walks while striking out four, throwing a wild pitch and hitting a batter.
“It’s something to build off of,” Gibbons said.
Romero wore a wrap on his pitching arm after the game. Montero’s hit caused the forearm to stiffen and swell.
In 2001, the Blue Jays sent Roy Halladay to A-ball at Dunedin to rediscover himself. Following a season of significant promise in1999, Halladay lost command of his fastball in 2000 and returned to the same pattern after the winter, giving up too many walks and home runs. He returned in the second half of 2001 to finish strong and never looked back, making eight all-star teams starting in 2002 and winning a pair of Cy Young Awards.
Just as Halladay’s mechanics needed repair, Romero went back to the future in Dunedin with roving pitching coach Dane Johnson as personal tutor.
Immediately after being told of the Jays plans for him in March, Romero felt “humbled,” Johnson related -- and if at all reflective of Halladay’s position back then, probably a mite bewildered too.
After a day or two to grapple with the decision, Romero got down to “barebones” to rework his mechanics. Aided by video going back to Romero’s first year in the organization, 2005, Johnson altered his delivery to start the hands at the waist and bring them to the chin during the wind-up, rather than all the way over the head as before. While he’s still pivoting toward first base before coming to the plate, the idea is to get his eye on the catcher’s target sooner and square his shoulders to the plate more cleanly and consistently.
“We broke down a lot of things from his throwing program and took it right into his flat grounds and sides [on the mound, practice sessions],” Johnson explained. “We piece-mealed it together a little bit -- where the hands should be, where they should break, adding the tap from the full windup, tweaking the shoulders and making sure they get to home plate online and on direction.”
All this affected how Romero moves his feet, his arm path through the motion, his arm slot upon release, the way his weight is transferred from back side to front side, and his direction to home plate, Johnson explained.
Given all the details in the reconstruction, it was surprising to see Romero brought back to the majors after just one Single-A start, in order to replace the injured Josh Johnson (triceps). Dane Johnson felt he was ready to go and reported as much to GM Alex Anthopoulos this week.
“No. 1, he’s a smart guy. No. 2, he’s a good athlete. No. 3, he’s a pro, and when he realized, hey I do have to do these things to be effective and throw strikes to home plate, it started to flow for him,” Johnson said. “We saw the progress on the side, he took them into his games, and he repeated it.”
Velocity wasn’t the issue. Command of his pitches, starting with the fastball, was the problem.
Romero was throwing gently into the 90-mph range in spring training and again on Friday, as always. Johnson said Romero has got his hand on top of the ball now at release in his ¾ delivery, a key to command.
Success will come with consistent repetition, including off-day workout habits, he said.
Notes: Melky Cabrera, restored to the No. 2 slot in the batting order after batting .167 in the 3-5-6 slots, went 1-for-4. Gibbons said he’s dealing with an unspecified leg issue. … Jose Bautista played in his 1,000th game; a single in three at-bats bumped his batting average to .205. … Romero has lost eight straight decisions at Rogers Centre.